Balancing Budgets And R&D

With all forms of federal spending under the microscope, spending on scientific research, technology development, and science education is facing deep cuts. In an editorial in the journal Science Congressman Rush Holt argues for keeping research and development as a key part of the federal budget.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Senator Barbara Mikulski summed up the situation on Capitol Hill. After her Science Subcommittee agreed to cut the National Science Foundation's budget by two-and-a-half percent, she said for the first time as chair, I've eliminated programs.

Writing this week in an editorial in the journal Science, Congressman Rush Holt argues that the government is in danger of heading down the wrong path with regard to science funding, that spending on science is as important - is a very important part of our nation's future.

Rush Holt from New Jersey is one of the few scientists in Congress, former director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and he joins us once against on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome back.

Representative RUSH HOLT: Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Were you surprised at what Senator Mikulski said? And your editorial, I mean, the alarm bells are going off.

HOLT: Well, I mean, no I'm not surprised. I mean, this year, all the talk in Washington has been about cutting. That's really - that's been the debate. And so the debt ceiling deal that was reached in early August was about what kind of automatic pilot we would put the country on, and then there was this super, 12-member committee that was created, and most of the discussion around that was about cutting.

Now, it wasn't specifically about cutting research and science, but we do know that, you know, over the - since 1960s, R&D has fallen by nearly two-thirds. And, you know, whether you're talking about measuring that as a percentage of discretionary spending or as a percentage of the gross domestic product, R&D has taken a hit over the years.

And now when there are going to be - if all of this goes forward as planned - huge government cuts, cuts in government spending, federal support for R&D is certain to take serious hits.

FLATOW: Do you feel that this Congress is even more critical of science and more willing to cut R&D than other sessions?

HOLT: You know, and they don't even think of it as an attack on science. They're not so much critical of science. It's a kind of pessimism that has set in that leaves science vulnerable. You know, for 200 years, Americans have always said the next generation will be better than the current generation, because we will make it so.

And investment in research - maybe back in the 19th century, you didn't call it research. But investment in this kind of infrastructure and intellectual infrastructure that allows this growth and progress has been part of the American way.

And the debate this year has been a much more pessimistic debate, saying we'll just have to regret that the next generation is not going to be better than this generation. So instead of saying we're going to make it so, we're going to lament the fact that it isn't so and say we've just got to tighten our belts and lower our sites.

And so it's not maybe directed specifically at research, but it - research then loses the - really, the support that it needs to create this national progress.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You argue that recent stimulus money put into science appears to have had about the same short-term impact as funding construction projects.

HOLT: That's right. I mean, there's - you know, the so-called stimulus bill, the Recovery Act of a couple of years ago, many people call it a failure. In fact, economic data show that it was a partial success. Within its own terms, it was really quite a good success.

Part of that was research money. There was $22 billion that I had a hand in getting into that bill in new science research, and that stimulates the economy in a variety of ways. In the short term, you're hiring lab techs and electricians who wire the labs and that sort of thing. In the mid-term, it has a multiplier effect, as any spending does.

And in the long term, some of that research will pay off big. You never know - I mean, it's the nature of research that you don't know what it is that will pay off big. But I think investment in research makes good economic sense in the short term, where its effects are similar to road construction, but even more in the long term, in what it brings to our quality of life and our economy.

FLATOW: There was some hopeful news about at least space funding this week, a bill passed by a Senate committee includes funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, and NASA rolled out plans for an even bigger rocket that it wanted to build, approaching the size of the Saturn 5 or bigger.

Do you think that was turned around by public opinion, the public heard about things like that and maybe influenced what Congress was going to do?

HOLT: I think that's possible. But, you know, we can talk about, you know, individual successes, individual programs that might be going ahead. The overall picture is that, you know, Congress is - again, if things go the way it is now prescribed to go, Congress has to find $2.4 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, and this supercommittee of 12 says they might even be looking for more than that.

Now it's - you know, it is supposed to be savings. So it would be a combination of new revenue and cuts. But one side is saying there can be no new revenue, no tax increases. So it ends up, you know, being cuts. And so, yes, you might be able to find more money for one program or another, but the overall effort will be - from the federal government will be less.

And research, I think, can be expected to take at least its share, if not more than its share, of hits. And as I say, you know, over the last couple of decades, it's fallen by nearly two-thirds of what it was. Actually, this would be over the last four decades, you know, roughly two-thirds of what it was.

FLATOW: You know, it didn't - research did not get a boost this week with that, the scrutiny of the Solyndra solar company and the $500 million federal loan on something that looked like a cutting-edge project.

HOLT: Yeah. This part isn't exactly science. This is the part that is supposed to take the scientific and engineering work into practical production. Now, in that particular case, there may well have been fraud. It may have been, to some extent, just a bad gamble. But overall, this kind of underwriting of venture loans is a - something that pays off large.

When this - when that particular program was set up, it was expected that, oh, you know, 10 to 20 percent, 14 or 15 percent, something like that, of the projects whose loans would be underwritten would fail. I mean, that's kind of the nature of this. So it's way too soon to say that this program is not a good use of taxpayer money.

But, you know, so this is not the research part of it. This is the bridge across the chasm between development and production. You know, something related to that, right now it has just been introduced in Congress yesterday that to pay for the additional disaster relief expenses - FEMA and so forth - money will be taken out of the Advanced Vehicle Program, the - what's known as the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program.

So, again, this is not the research in new materials, new drive systems and so forth, new fuel efficiency. It is to turn that into practical manufacturing. That ATVM program has probably saved or created four or five tens of thousands of - 40,000 or 50,000 jobs so far. So it's unfortunate that that program is where the Appropriations Committee proposes to get the money for - to pay for the disaster relief expenses in, you know, in my state of New Jersey and in New York and Vermont, and where the tornados went through the South and so forth.

FLATOW: Congress Holt, I thank you for taking time to be with us today, and good luck to you.

HOLT: It's always good to be with you. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Representative Rush Holt, who is New Jersey's 12th District congressperson in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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